BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - The Shi’ite factions that have feuded over control of Iraq’s southern oil hub Basra have proclaimed a truce, but the challenge will come soon when Britain hands responsibility for the province to Iraqi forces.
The handover of security in Basra, expected next week, will be the biggest test yet of the Iraqi government’s ability to maintain order without relying on U.S. or British soldiers.
U.S. and British forces have already handed eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces over to Iraqi control. But Basra, with Iraq’s second-largest city, only port and oil exports providing most of the government’s revenue, is a challenge of a different scale.
By the middle of next year, Britain, which patrolled the province since 2003, will have just a token force of 2,500 troops, confined to an airbase outside Basra city.
Iraqi authorities say they have the firepower for the job.
“Our forces in Basra have tanks, armoured vehicles and planes. We are backed directly by the interior minister and the prime minister,” Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Firaiji, head of Basra’s security operations, told Reuters in an interview.
He said leaders of the city’s main rival armed Shi’ite factions met in a mosque last week and signed a pact to cooperate with security forces and not carry guns.
Washington and London say responsibility for averting a meltdown now rests firmly with the Iraqis.
“We didn’t create the mess in Basra,” a senior U.S. official said in Baghdad last week.
“This is a case where this government, the Shi’a parties have failed to act responsibly. They are now taking notice of it and there seems to be some efforts to try to get the different parties represented to start making an accommodation.”
Rival Shi’ite factions, each with their own militia and political agendas, have vied for control in Basra since 2003.
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers are thought to have the most clout on the streets, while the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has influence in the security forces and the smaller Fadhila party controls the governorate.
Each has a different view on regional autonomy: Sadr opposes it, the Supreme Council wants Basra as part of a Shi’ite region across the south and Fadhila wants autonomy for Basra itself.
Some of the militia have imposed strict Islamic codes. Women have been killed for so-called “honour crimes” and walls have been painted with threats against those who go out unveiled.
For much of the year, the situation deteriorated. British troops who patrolled Basra came under escalating bombing and mortar attacks until September, when they quit their base in the city centre for the airbase on its outskirts.
Since then, with no more British troops in the city to attack, violence has abated. Many ordinary Basrawis say the city feels safer and government troops appear to be in charge.
“I don’t think there’s any truth to talk of militias ruling Basra. It’s true that sometimes they carry weapons and sometimes spark clashes but the government and its forces are the ones who almost always win,” said university lecturer Wisam Hamid.
Commander Firaiji said most violence was not political.
“We have no militants in the streets, no terrorism in Basra, no crime-infested areas. We still have some organised crime, honour crimes and personal acts of revenge. But politically motivated crimes do not exceed four percent,” he said.
Faction leaders, once at daggers drawn, have taken to making conciliatory remarks.
“The period of dispute between us and the governor are over. We have good relations with the governor and the Fadhila party,” Sheikh Ali al-Suaidi, a senior Sadrist in Basra, told Reuters.
Prominent Fadhila member Aqeel Talib said the Sadr movement had “played a positive role in recent weeks”.
But the test of their willingness to lay down arms will be deeds, not words, said Oslo-based historian Reidar Visser, an expert on southern Iraq who edits the Web site historiae.org.
“As with other such pacts ... it is the facts on the ground rather than the statements that will count,” he said.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Dean Yates and Mussab al-Khairalla in Baghdad; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Dean Yates